Predatory Publishers in Astronomy and How to Identify Them

by Guest on October 13, 2018

Our guest post today is from Dr. Michael Brown of Monash University, Australia, where he studies the evolution of active galactic nuclei and the growth of galaxies over cosmic time. He has written several articles on the topic of predatory publishers and conferences.

Have you checked your spam folder recently? A decade ago it may have only contained scams to empty your bank account or ads for dubious supplements. In recent years, however, astronomers’ spam folders have increasingly been filled with invitations from suspicious-looking  conferences and journals. These so called “predatory publishers” are on the rise.

Predatory publishers’ offerings mimic legitimate journals and conferences, but they often lack functional peer review and editorial services. They have exploded over the past decade as online publishing has dramatically lowered publication costs. Unfortunately, most of the predatory publishers also exploit the open access model, where authors pay publication fees and journal articles are freely available. A journal can thus be created and have visibility online without requiring buy-in from academic libraries. By publishing with little (or no) peer review and without providing editorial services, profit margins could potentially be huge.

The invitations and websites of predatory publishers often contain a myriad of red flags that hint at their suspect nature. For a start, you may never have heard of the relevant conference, journal, or publishers. Emails with incorrect grammar and distorted images indicate that the relevant publisher may not provide the advertised editorial services.  

Predatory publishers often hide their true identities. Websites may use proxy registration services (that can be identified with whois, which is a way of determining who registered the domain) to hide both the true registrant and country of origin. A postal address may just be a forwarding address rather than actual offices.   

Until recently, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, maintained a list of potentially predatory publishers. While some entries on Beall’s list are controversial and the list isn’t being updated, it remains a valuable first step for identifying predatory publishers.

So why ultimately should astronomers ultimately care about predatory publishers? If most of their emails are flagged as spam and they’re (mostly) easy to identify, then aren’t they a non-issue? Not entirely.

Predatory publishers are a vector for pseudoscience, which can end up being popularised online and in the media. Some wild claims regarding life originating from space that have ended up in the UK tabloids were originally published in journals from alleged predatory publishers. Similarly, the general public (and inexperienced students) may not be able to distinguish the offerings of predatory publishers from legitimate journals and conferences.

Predatory publishers have also been engaged in identity theft, using the names and photographs of legitimate academics without permission to inflate the standing of suspect journals and conferences. You may want to check exactly where your profile photo can be found online, which can be done using a reverse image search.

Predatory publishers are also a consumer affairs issue, as they don’t provide the services advertised. I once dropped in on the second day of a conference in Melbourne organised by the alleged predatory publisher OMICS, but there was no sign of the conference. Either the conference venue had been changed or the conference was far shorter than advertised.The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched court action against OMICS, which could potentially reign in this publisher.  

So where do we go from here? The FTC may start bringing predatory publishers to heel, but for now the number of predatory publishers continues to increase. While the academic community is increasingly aware of predatory publishers, some people do still get ensnared. We thus have a responsibility to make students, journalists, and the broader public aware of these dubious operators.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joshua Pepper October 16, 2018 at 2:23 pm

It might be useful to recommend that students use a list of legitimate astronomy journals. Wikipedia has such a list, although I am not sure how well-vetted it is. All the legitimate journals I know of are on there, although there are also a number I have never heard of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_astronomy_journals

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2 Ethan Vishniac October 17, 2018 at 1:01 pm

That list has not been vetted. Briefly skimming it I recognized at least one that is a venue for crank publications.

3 Michael Brown October 26, 2018 at 5:57 pm

One definitely should click on the links for those journals, which may (or may not) go to wikipedia articles with relevant information. For example:

The Journal of Cosmology describes itself as a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal of cosmology,[1] although the quality of the process has been questioned.[2][3][4][5][6][7]

4 Kelly Lockhart October 18, 2018 at 12:13 pm

ADS doesn’t maintain a list of verified journals, per se, but we do have a list of the journals we’ve indexed. Our curatorial staff are the ones making the decisions about what we should include, based on a set of guidelines they’ve decided on beforehand, so it should be a fairly reasonable list. (Note, though, that just because a journal is listed, doesn’t mean we’ve indexed all of the journal, and the quality of a given journal may have changed with time.)

Links to journal lists: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs_doc/journal_abbr.html
Curatorial guidelines: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs_doc/faq.html#addjournal

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